You may have heard early childhood is a time of remarkable brain development. First Things First shares that “90% of brain growth happens before kindergarten. At birth, the average baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of the average adult brain. Incredibly, it doubles in size in the first year. It keeps growing to about 80% of adult size by age 3 and 90% – nearly full grown – by age 5.” You can practically see your kid getting smarter every day! But, as caregivers, how can we best support this growth? We can’t have scintillating conversations with a toddler who barely speaks in sentences.
So, what should we do? Let’s learn some easy ways to support our young child’s brain development that we can all enjoy—no need to buy anything and no pressure to make every moment count. We do what we can when we can.
Serve and Return
Before babies can talk, they learn the art of conversation. When they make a sound, their caregivers respond. When they cry, they may receive soothing touch and comforting words to soothe them or solve their struggles. When babies smile and giggle, they love the big reactions this gets from everyone around them. They turn toward the sound of familiar voices and learn how to take turns in a conversation. They coo, and we respond, “Tell me all about it!” the baby coos some more, and we converse back and forth. They are doing what they can to have a chat with you.
The Center of the Developing Child at Harvard calls this “serve and return” like a game of tennis or ping-pong. We can encourage this “conversation” by showing interest in their actions. We are also helping children build vocabulary when we are labeling things our children are interested in (Do you think we should buy these yellow apples?) Dr. Pamela High of the American Academy of Pediatrics shares, “The more words that are in a child’s language world, the more words they will learn, and the stronger their language skills are when they reach kindergarten, the more prepared they are to be able to read, and the better they read, the more likely they will graduate from high school.”
Young children naturally play with their surroundings. We can support this by providing lots of open-ended ways to play. Materials such as blocks, scarves, dolls, and kid-sized “grown-up toys” (think shopping carts, brooms, etc.) are all beautiful ways kids can develop their thinking as they play with them. We can help them process feelings through puppets and dolls. Conversation, as you play together, builds imaginative play and vocabulary.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limited screen time (For children younger than 18 months, discourage using screen media other than video-chatting.) to maximize connection and hands-on learning for young children. First Things First has created a fun video to share helpful tips on interacting with a baby or non-verbal toddler during play to build connections. Playing games like peek-a-boo seems like a fun way to elicit a giggle from your baby. They’re also helping develop brain pathways as the baby learns object permanence and gauges your reaction for serve-and-return “conversations.”
It might feel silly to read books to a tiny infant, but pediatricians and educators agree that reading benefits even the youngest of babies and helps them bond with you. Snuggling up to read together is one of the best ways to instill a love of reading in children. They connect books with connection, joy, and adventure. “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain,” Jim Trelease writes in The Read-Aloud Handbook. “You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”
We are also offering our children a glimpse into other worlds. Reading aloud can help build empathy and understanding of other perspectives. Books provide the perfect opportunity to begin conversations about race, disability, body types, and more by labeling what we see in the pictures together. When we read to our babies and toddlers, we’re also helping set them up for success in school. According to the Children’s Bureau, “Early reading with your child is a true one-on-one opportunity for children to communicate with their parents and parents to communicate with their children. It allows children to grow their vocabulary skills with exposure to new words and listening skills they develop from hearing someone read to them that become vital to their academic success.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages families to spend time outside “because outdoor play is linked to health, lower stress, and greater mental wellbeing among children.” Meeting up with other families at a park or biking together through a neighborhood can help build a child’s love of nature. The variety in the environment allows babies to develop their understanding of the world. When we combine that with a conversation, labeling what the baby is looking at, describing the squirrel’s fluffy tail, etc., the baby builds their vocabulary and connection with a place.
By Megan McQueen. Spanish translation by IRCO’s International Language Bank.
Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, imparting a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.